Four years ago, the Democrats and Barack Obama took power with promises to bring “hope and change” to Washington, D.C. after the Republicans and George W. Bush alienated vast swathes of people in the US and abroad.
So what has hope and change under the Democratic Party rule really meant?
It’s meant the continuation—and even intensification—of many Bush regime policies such as:
• Massive financial handouts to US corporations and banks;
• Economic austerity measures for the poor;
• Deportation of undocumented immigrants at record historical rates surpassing that of the Bush regime;
• Continued use of Guantanamo Bay prison camp and resumption of military trials;
• An increase in domestic warrantless electronic spying;
• An American empire ravaging the world with US bombings, predator drone strikes, regime change operations, political destabilization campaigns disguised as “pro-democracy’ movements, and overt/covert wars against multiple nations like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Allah knows where else.
Though the party in power may change, government policy on the economy, immigration, civil liberties, and foreign affairs continues apace, albeit with minor modifications.
You could say that American democracy is evocative of that lyric from The Who’s classic 1971 song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
These issues raise questions that are often considered politically incorrect during election season with its exhortations to “get out the vote”: Are there any real differences between Democrats and Republicans?
Is electoral politics a viable agent of political change? And is America really a democracy?
For most people, to even pose this last question is political heresy. But ask yourself this: How can a nation like America, which has routinely supported pro-US dictators and attempted to overthrow democratically elected leaders around the world while waging multiple aggressive wars that have killed millions of people, claim to be a crusader for democracy? If some other country had a similar record of aggression and criminality and also claimed to be a global defender of democracy, this country would be unmercifully ridiculed and vilified—yet not so for the United States of America.
That is quite an accomplishment in propaganda or, to use the preferred terminology today, branding.
Brand Obama and Rebranding America
In October 2008, the prominent trade magazine Advertising Age selected Barack Obama as its “marketer of the year.” Based upon a vote of influential marketing organizations and individuals at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference, the honor was awarded to Obama over competitors like Apple, Nike, and Coors.
Previous winners of this award have included prestigious corporations like Toyota, Nintendo, McDonald’s, Target, and Apple. Heady company for a politician.
However, it’s not a new development that political parties and candidates in the USA are advertised as consumer products like deodorant, potato chips, or breakfast cereal.
Joseph Kennedy Sr. famously said about his son John F. Kennedy’s political campaign for Congress, “We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes.”
Madison Avenue marketing thoroughly saturates American society and politics.
As the Pulitzer Prize writer Chris Hedges asserts: “Politicians are the public face of corporate power. They are corporate employees. Their personal narratives, their promises, their rhetoric and their idiosyncrasies are meaningless…. The corporate state does not produce a product that is different. It produces brands that are different.”
In many ways, US elections are akin to choosing between different consumer brands that offer distinctions without a difference: Obama vs. Romney; Democrat vs. Republican; Coke vs. Pepsi.
Even more disturbing is how branding can extend even to nation states.
As the author Paul Street has argued, Barack Obama’s improbable rise from obscure US Senator to the White House was engineered by the American political establishment as an Orwellian tactic to “rebrand America” with a more progressive image, giving the US empire a public relations facelift after the Bush regime had induced so much disgust around the globe.
What Is To Be Done?
So instead of putting energy into supporting this or that political candidate or party, what can be done—particularly for Asian Americans?
The historian Howard Zinn put it best: “There’s hardly anything more important people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”
In a country where voting is akin to passive consumerism, political empowerment is not found in the ballot box but in the street.
And the first step towards organizing in the streets is consciousness-raising. For without an understanding of how US institutions work—how they really work—political action is futile.
Indeed, if there’s one thing that Asian Americans lack, it’s an oppositional political consciousness.
For not a few Asian Americans, this consciousness is anathema. They cannot bring themselves to step outside the safe bubble reality of the model minority and question everything they have been taught about the self-proclaimed Land of the Free.